Stirrings of Spring

Over the course of a year hundreds of moth species turn up in my moth trap. Most of these, and the twenty-three species of butterfly that we have here, will be going through their complete lifecycle in the meadows, yet rarely are any of these caterpillars seen. Since caterpillars make such a nutritious snack for all sorts of things, many are well adapted to not being easily found. Some will be hidden within plant stems, others only come out to feed at night or are well camouflaged to blend with their background, and a few will even be tucked up within ant nests being tended to by the ants.

Therefore, it was surprising to find this Oak Eggar Moth caterpillar out in the open, sunning itself on a reptile sampling square this week.

This caterpillar is deploying an alternative strategy for not being eaten – covering itself in hairs that have an irritant effect so that they are avoided by birds.

I find this all very interesting and have set myself the challenge to find five new species of caterpillar in the meadows this year. The Oak Eggar is the first of my five but I am expecting the other four not to be quite so easy.

There has been some work going on around the Badger sett over several nights this week.

The dog’s ball accidentally rolled into another Badger tunnel this week:

But she was prepared to go in and get it:

A colour ringed Herring Gull has been seen up at the feeding cages. The bird has a normal metal ring on its right foot and a colour ring on its left, the idea being that the bird can now be identified through binoculars without being recaught. Unfortunately, although I have quite a few different photos of this bird, I can’t quite get all the numbers and letters on that ring. There have been numerous gull colour-ringing schemes over the years and gulls are long-lived birds and so the scheme could actually have been a while ago. The last big project was finished recently because the land fill site in Essex was closed down.

Hopefully we will see this bird again and I can piece the code together and report my sighting of it to the British Trust for Ornithology

The rattle of Magpies has seemed to be everywhere this past week. A pair are making a nest at the very top of this pine tree and have been busy carrying in sticks:

Another pair are building a nest at the top of one of the Holm Oaks.

We assembled some sticks and got a camera onto them. As we had hoped, the Magpies couldn’t resist this and came and collected some:

Here a pair are collecting mud and grass which I presume are used to bind the sticks together. Or perhaps there is a softer mud lining to the nest?

In March we would expect to see some large groups of Starlings gathering here waiting for good conditions to get back across the North Sea to their breeding grounds in Continental Europe. These are our winter visitor Starlings that have been murmurating in fantastic displays over reed beds throughout the winter, but are now returning to their summer home.

However, a lone pair of Starlings have arrived this week in the meadows ahead of them and I hope that these birds are British residents who will now be stopping to breed. 2020 was a very successful year for Starlings here with a lot of young being fledged and I am hoping for this again – these British resident Starlings are red-listed birds of high conservation concern because their population fell 70% in the twenty-five years to 2014.

Another red-listed bird that did very well here last year is the Yellowhammer. The Bird Ringer caught several juvenile birds last summer that will have fledged from our hedgerows. But this year is looking even more promising with a small flock now being seen feeding in the cages. There are seven Yellowhammer here:

And nine here:

The Bird Ringer came this week to set his nets up in the meadows to try to catch these Yellowhammer. Bird Ringing has been allowed to continue through this lockdown because of the vital scientific data that is collected, but we just haven’t had the weather and this was the first time he had been here for many months.

Some of the frogspawn laid last week is in really shallow water. With no rain for a while now it was already starting to dry out. Once the tadpoles hatch it would be difficult to rescue them all, so we decided to move the spawn from the shallows and reposition it somewhere deeper.

We will keep an eye on that – it may shortly be necessary to move some more as well.

Elsewhere in the meadows:

Two years ago Great Spotted Woodpeckers drilled out a cavity in a cherry tree in the wood and raised a brood of young within. These Woodpeckers never use the same nest hole twice, but Green Woodpeckers do sometimes use the abandoned holes of Great Spotted rather than making their own, and this is exactly what happened last year. So what is going to happen this year? I don’t know if Green Woodpeckers reuse a nest a second time but I am hoping to find out. We strapped a camera to a pole to look at the hole and got this photo this week, which looks promising:

Hopefully this camera will get some good photos this spring.

This is the first time we have seen Scarlet Elf Cup in the wood. However, it does look likes the Slugs have been at it:

The Bird Ringer spent some time in the wood this week and sent me these photos:

There are a large number of Pheasants in the wood. Apparently 57 million Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge were released into the wild in Britain last year for shooting purposes and the sheer scale of that number is difficult to comprehend. However, for comparison, I can tell you that the total number of all native British birds in 2020 from Goldcrests to Golden Eagles and everything inbetween was only 83 million pairs. Before these released game birds get shot, they hoover up resources in the countryside that should be supporting our proper wildlife. Wild Justice, an organisation that is very close to my heart, is not afraid to stand up and challenge many of these anachronistic practices that make no sense in a 21st century world, if ever they did.

Our wood offers sanctuary for these birds, but there are an uncomfortable number of them.

I have just bought a new book that I am looking forward to reading:

As Sir David Attenborough says in the introduction, the book should enable us to take account of vulnerable habitat features so important to invertebrates, without necessarily knowing what species are present. So the book sounds exactly what we need and I can’t wait to get going on it.

Frogs and Lizards

The extreme wintry weather of last week is already feeling like a distant memory. This week has been so much milder and there has even been a little bit of sunshine. The smell of cut grass in the garden and laundry flapping on the line has always brought me so much pleasure.

Green corrugated sheets aren’t the most beautiful of adornments for a pond but they provide great shelter for amphibians:

Once the pond water had melted, we looked under one of them to see how the Frogs were getting on. This sight was certainly unexpected:

The female Frog, bulbous with her tummy full of spawn, has unfortunately been flipped over by two over-arduous males and she is stranded helpless on her back as they cling tightly to her:

The couple under the second corrugated sheet had got things much more sensibly organised. The clamping on of a male is thought to trigger the female to lay her spawn and, when she does, he is in prime position to sprinkle his sperm over to fertilise the eggs.

There was a Smooth Newt out of the water as well:

The next morning, a single dollop of spawn had been laid in unfeasibly shallow water at one end of the pond:

I put a trail camera onto it, hoping to capture any further action the next night. The camera got this photo of the spawn towards the end of the day:

The next morning, a whole lot more spawn had been laid, but the camera had failed to take another photo until it took this one:

I wondered if perhaps the camera was not working as well as it once did and so I brought in some more. They look like paparazzi crowding around a celebrity – surely one of these would get the killer shot for the morning papers?

But no, not one of them took a single shot. Obviously something the size of a Frog moving in the dark is not enough to trigger their sensors. For the following night, I put the cameras into time lapse mode which deactivates their sensors and they just take a photo at set time intervals. This worked, but the results are far from outstanding:

Luckily, we had also crept down there ourselves with torches and cameras to try to capture this wildlife spectacle.

There was a lovely loud churring noise coming from the wild pond:

It hasn’t all been about amphibians. On three days this week we have found this Viviperous Lizard basking on the top of a reptile sampling square. It has flattened its abdomen to offer the largest possible surface area to the sun. We had never seen this behaviour before – how amazing:

In the freezing weather of last week, we discovered a Wren roosting overnight in our teapot nest box. One night, there were actually two Wrens in the box – one is already in the box and another is coming in through the chicken wire:

The camera also caught one of the birds leaving at 06.47 in the morning, just as it was getting light.

Now that the nights are warmer, Wrens are still using the box although not necessarily every night.

The Snipe, Lapwing and Black Headed Gull, that arrived in the meadows in the extreme weather, have now left. The Woodcock, however, remains with us:

Some other bird photos from around the meadows this week:

I am going to finish today with the old gentleman Fox who is so much more obvious than any other Fox on the cameras at the moment. Here he is sniffing down a Badger tunnel. Actually, even we can detect a smell of warm, damp earth coming up from there.

He is willing to tolerate me so long as I continue to bring him honey sandwiches and peanuts:

I consider it to be an enormous honour to be allowed to be so close to a wild animal and peanut time has now become one of my favourite times of day.

Rediscovering Love for Hot Water Bottles

I obviously pushed fate a bit too far by calling my previous post ‘A Few Small Signs of Spring’. Snow fell on Sunday and has stayed on the ground the whole week, with temperatures hardly getting above freezing. The weather has felt, quite literally, perishing for anything trying to survive out there. Even for us, living in a centrally heated house, we have had to retrieve the hot water bottles from under the stairs and keep them tucked under blankets to stay warm.

There was another fall of snow on Wednesday which finished just after dark, creating a lovely blank canvas for the footprints of the creatures of the night.

The nights have been very cold, some of them getting down to -5°C, and often accompanied by strong and bitter north-easterly winds.

We have this teapot nest box. It’s an open fronted box, of the sort favoured by birds such as Robins and Wrens:

A few years ago, a Wren made a nest in it. A male Wren will make five or six nests and the female then inspects each one and decides which one she wants to use. Clearly the teapot nest got the thumbs down because it was never used and so we left the nesting material in it. Subsequently, chicken wire has gone around the box to provide protection against Magpies, although I notice that there is actually now quite a large hole in the wiring that needs attention – a Magpie could easily stick its head through that.

This box may never have been used to raise young, but a Wren has been roosting in there overnight during this freezing weather.

I put a camera on the box and even went so far as to set it to the correct time. Unfortunately, it didn’t perform brilliantly, but it is possible to make out the bird going into the box at dusk, at eight minutes past five.

Isn’t it pretty amazing that, on the next evening, it was also eight minutes past five that it entered the box?

I think that many of the nest boxes here are used as night time roosts over the winter, judging by the amount of droppings we find in them.

This spell of unusually cold weather has meant that we have been seeing a few different birds. The Woodcock that we first saw on Sunday, has stayed with us in the meadows all week, and we have been flushing it up from the hedgerow margins every day as we walk round.

Intriguingly, there is another wader that we have been flushing several times a day but it is gone in a flash and we only ever get the briefest of views. The most we can really say is that it is smaller than the Woodcock with a white front and long bill. If only it would wander in front of a camera as the Woodcock did.

Yesterday we realised that there are now actually three of these unknown waders working the meadows by day. I have tried to increase the chances of getting the birds on a camera by redeploying six cameras from duties elsewhere and placing them to look at spots where we have previously set the bird up. Nothing so far, although I will keep trying. This approach did get the Woodcock again though:

Wrapping up really warm and putting a hot water bottle in under our coats, we have also been up on the Deer stalking seat, looking out over the second meadow:

In this way, we found the 86th species for the meadow bird list – a Snipe. Not dissimilar to the Woodcock really, but a pale tummy and three yellow stripes front to back on the top of its head clinched it for us.

Could our mystery waders actually be Snipe? Maybe, but we don’t think so and will continue investigating.

While all this was going on, our 87th species touched down briefly in the second meadow – a Lapwing.

There has been a group of around a dozen Meadow Pipit, an unusual bird here, working their way around the grass tussocks that are standing proud of the snow.

A small flock of Starlings is the first that we had seen here for ages:

Some Redwing and Fieldfare have been working the leaf litter at the hedgerow edges:

Large flights of Cormorants are to be seen every winter, flying low over the sea below us. This week, however, they flew over the meadows instead:

Lurking in the hedgerows as we were, trying to photograph the Pipits earlier this week, we started watching Gulls wheeling overhead. Herring Gulls are a very familiar bird here, but there were Black-headed Gulls too, distinguishable by a very obvious white stripe down the leading edge of their wing. In their winter plumage, they have the dark mark behind the eye but, in the summer, their heads will be chocolate brown.

There was a third type of Gull as well – Common Gull. These Gulls, with a small yellow/green bill, have almost completely white wing tips, or certainly they appear so from afar.

Common Gull has now been entered onto our meadow bird list at number 88. It’s not that they have never been here before, but rather this is the first time we got our act together and properly identified them.

This week, for the first time ever, a Black Headed Gull has been coming to feed on the strip. What a pretty Gull it is:

It must have been a very challenging week for Green Woodpeckers, needing to probe the frozen ground for ants:

I suspect that it has also been tough for birds hunting small mammals such as this Kestrel. The Voles are probably still going about their business but now under the snow layer making them so much more difficult to catch.

The winter feed that we put down is clearly being appreciated by seed eaters:

Badgers have continued to make some daytime cameo appearances:

A couple of wintery scenes from the meadows:

The one-eyed vixen has been keeping a low profile recently but good to see that she is still around and looking healthy:

The Foxes in the wood have always been quite elusive but they have certainly been seen on the cameras during this snowy weather:

The wood looked completely wonderful in the snow:

The new pond had all but disappeared:

I see that male Pheasants have an issue with their long tail feathers in this weather:

And Woodcock have problems with those beaks of theirs:

There has been a rare visit from a Red Deer. I wonder what they are finding to eat in the snow:

I had ordered some Snowdrops ‘in the green’ to plant under a tree in the garden. They arrived this week but the ground has been frozen hard.

The weather forecast for this coming week suggests that milder times are on their way. I can look forward to getting out and doing some gardening to plant out the Snowdrops, putting the hot water bottles back under the stairs and definitely starting to look again for a few small signs of spring.

A Few Small Signs of Spring

As February begins to unfurl, a few tantalising glimpses of spring are there to be seen by those who long to hustle this winter out of the door:

The more I learn about the perils of Butterfly hibernation, the more I appreciate the miracle of seeing one emerge intact in the spring.

The Freshwater Habitats Trust are once again running a spawn survey where they request sightings of spawn and publish them on a weekly map. As usual, the sightings commence in Devon and Cornwall, where it is usually milder and wetter, and then gradually spread across the country from there. As of Friday 5th February, the situation was as below:

Is this the year that we shall see some Toad spawn here? Our ponds are relatively new and Toads are slow colonisers of new places and so maybe not yet, but I will look for it nonetheless.

For the last week, the male Badger, Scarface, has seemed very testosterone-fuelled and has been making a wickering noise on every video that he appears in. Badgers mate as soon as the cubs are born in early February and he knows that his time is coming.

Seeing him out in the daylight is also suggestive of interesting happenings going on underground:

There are also signs that fresh bedding is being brought into the sett, perhaps in preparation for the birth. But it has been so very wet that all vegetation above ground is saturated and hardly ideal as bedding – but what choice do they have?

In our garden we have several areas of Crocosmia growing – it must be a plant that likes dry, chalky conditions. The foliage is now all flopped over and withered but we haven’t cleared it away in order to provide winter shelter for invertebrates. That’s our excuse anyway.

Winter is still far from over and now is not a wildlife-friendly moment to tidy this Crocosmia up, but I did do a light comb-through with my fingers to pull away some of the leaves so that I could dry them and put them out for the Badgers. I want to think of the new cubs lying on cosy bedding deep down in their sett.

I spread the leaves out on the tiled floor of the greenhouse to dry off.

This reminded me that, a few years ago now, we visited the Highland Park Whisky Distillery on Orkney which is one of the few distilleries to still dry the barley the traditional way on a heated malting floor.

We are so overdue a return trip to Orkney – it was lovely there.

The weather forecast was foretelling that one night this week was going to be entirely dry and not too cold – a rare occurrence of late. The leaves drying in the greenhouse weren’t quite ready by this point so I finished them off in front of the Aga during the afternoon, turning them frequently just as they do with the barley at the Highland Park Distillery…

…and put them down by the sett at dusk:

There is a camera trained on this hole but it let me down and failed to capture anything other than this photo of a Badger contemplating the pile:

By the morning, however, the Crocosmia leaves had largely disappeared underground, as I had hoped.

I believe that, as I write now, there are already cubs lying on those Crocosmia leaves – yes, I think that cubs have now been born. We have observed over the years that the adult female Badgers are extremely protective of their cubs and will not let the male Badger anywhere near them for quite some considerable time. So it is very telling that, in several of the videos over the last couple of days, I have seen the females launching attacks on poor old Scarface.

This young Badger was bumbling along and didn’t notice the resting old gentleman Fox until it was almost on top of him:

I wonder if he has finally successfully found himself a mate:

The female Kestrel has been using the new perch by the Reptile area again this week. In this photo she is showing her ring:

She is almost certainly the bird that was ringed here in September 2019 as a youngster:

We have a black triumvirate – a family of three Carrion Crows who live here and can be found together in a group almost all of the time. A bit of research on the internet reveals that these Crows will probably be gathering to roost overnight with lots of other Crows during the winter, somewhere in dense woodland that has traditionally been used for generations. Crows are often the last birds to go to roost at night, usually well after dusk, and the earliest to leave in the mornings, being very keen to return to defend their territories against potential intruders.

These three are always to be seen here during daylight hours and presumably they will soon be nesting close by.

The Crows are tolerant of the Kestrels and probably can’t keep track of what the Sparrowhawks are getting up to. But, should any other Bird of Prey dare to fly into the airspace above the meadows, like a war time RAF station, they scramble to get themselves up into the air to see off the enemy planes. This is most annoying for us humans who would like to get good views of the visiting raptor but often only see it rapidly departing with the triumvirate in hot pursuit.

We took the dog for a walk on the high, high chalk cliffs at St Margarets this week, a village just to the south of the meadows. At the highest point, there is the Dover Patrol Memorial, a granite obelisk built to commemorate the two thousand people from the Royal Navy’s Dover Patrol who lost their lives during the First World War. There is a matching second such obelisk at Cap Blanc-Nez directly across the Channel in France and a third one in New York City.

A decommissioned Coast Guard Station is next to the memorial that, until a few years ago, was the Bluebird Tearoom. Such a shame that this is now a private residence – much missed as a welcome stop off during walks along the cliffs.

As we neared the Dover Patrol Memorial, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon perched at the top of the cliffs. Not a great photo but it is the closest we managed to get.

As I write now, with Storm Darcy raging its way across the land, all thoughts of spring are put on hold:

This Woodcock, pictured in the wood this week, has travelled to Britain to spend the winter here. It might be completely unpleasant out there today, but it’s nothing compared to the Scandinavian and Russian winters from which it is escaping.

As we walked the dog around the meadows this morning, wrapped up warm against the strong north-easterly winds and horizontal driving snow, we put a Woodcock up from the scrubby hedgerow edge here in the meadows. Has this bird been newly blown in from Scandinavia ahead of these winds? We only see Woodcock in the meadows at times of extreme weather.

But I return to a note of calm to finish today. Earlier on in the week, when I was still contemplating the joys of spring, we were treated to a glorious yellow dawn:

The smaller vessel is the Ocean Marlin who has been here for several weeks now, seconded onto fishery protection duties. These duties seem to involve a lot of time at anchor alongside us but maybe that’s a good sign. The other ship is a banana boat – one of the refrigerated reefers that sail the ocean between South America and the Port of Dover loaded with cargoes of exotic fruits. All seemed tranquil on this lovely morning but I expect that it is a very different picture indeed out at sea today.

Big Garden Bird Watching

On the way to the wood this week, we visited Bishopsbourne to continue our exploration of the Elham Nailbourne – an intermittent stream that only rises in really wet winters and which is running now.

I have used Keynote to put some labels onto this Apple Maps image of Bishopsbourne, a lovely little hamlet that time seems to have overlooked.

Bourne House lies at the edge of the hamlet and the Elham Valley Way runs through its grounds and so it was possible for us to walk there. Although the nailbourne itself is mostly dry, another spring rises here and this one looks like it keeps going all year. It feeds into the bed of the nailbourne and then down into the lake in front of Bourne House.

Bourne House is the home of the mother-in-law of ultra Conservative politician, Jacob Rees-Mogg – someone who’s Wikipedia entry says that his anachronistic upper-class mannerisms and consciously traditionalist attitudes are often seen as entertaining. Whether you find him entertaining or not, here he is infamously lounging during a debate in the Houses of Parliament last year:

We hope to return to Bishopsbourne in the summer to revisit the Bourne House spring and also have a drink at the nice-looking pub in the hamlet once it has reopened in future, happier times.

This time of year is when Foxes mate and I have more footage of the moth-eaten old gentleman being rebuffed:

I am very fond of him but I can see why a vixen might not view him as much of a catch. He has half a tail, his backbone is often arched upwards perhaps suggesting an old injury and for the last couple of months he has been carrying a back hind leg.

On the videos, I have seen signs that this leg of his has been improving recently and he does now occasionally put it down on the ground as he walks, but his ability to help provide for a young family in a few weeks time has to be compromised.

Other than our dog, we don’t eat meat here and so we never have those kind of scraps for him but he is currently the most keen of consumers of the nutritious and energy-packed nightly peanuts that we lay on. I am so pleased to have been able to support him while his leg recovers.

Magpies are a problem unless the peanuts go out when it is almost completely dark – I don’t want to encourage our over-abundant Magpie population in any way and so usually try to put them out late. But even though I have put the peanuts out in the light here, the Magpie is wary of getting too close to a Fox, even a rather tatty one with a bad leg:

When we first came here, I was surprised to see male Foxes cocking their legs just like a male dog. For some reason it had never occurred to me that they would do that:

On the last weekend in January every year, the RSPB runs the Big Garden Bird Watch, the world’s largest wildlife survey. Last year 485,930 people throughout the UK counted 7.8 million birds. This weekend, it is the 42nd year that the event is being held although the number of people taking part this year might be affected by today’s horrible weather.

We set up the mobile hide so that we could see the feeders at both of the ponds at the same time and spent a happy hour in there quietly observing. The rules are that the bird has got to actually land and you count the maximum birds of a species seen at one time. At the end of the hour, we had recorded 75 birds of 15 species which I think is probably a fair representation of the birds that are around the feeders at this time of year (Wood Pigeon, Crow, Magpie, Wren, House Sparrow, Dunnock, Robin, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long Tailed Tit, Green Finch, Stock Dove, Green Woodpecker).

We were particularly pleased that a Green Woodpecker choose that particular hour to come and do some probing around the meadows..

..and a small flock of ten Stock Doves landed in a nearby tree:

For the last few days, a Blackcap has been coming in for a drink and it would have been good to have spotted her during the magic hour, but she was a no-show:

At this time of year, male Robins get very territorial and so I presume that these two must be a pair since they seem to be relaxed in each others company:

As we go round the meadows, we have started to hear the uplifting and surprisingly piercing call of the Song Thrush. There is great variety in its song but each phrase is repeated several times before it moves on to the next one which makes it unmistakeable, even to us.

A little Wren has twice now been discovered inside the hide if the door is left open. It is poking around the windows, presumably after Spiders. Personally, I am very happy for it to come in and do that, whilst also being a bit neurotic about trapping the bird in there by mistake:

It is a few months now since we put a perch and accompanying camera up along the margin of the reptile area. This area hasn’t been cut for two or three years and now the sward is getting fabulously unkempt and tussocky. There are also about ten log piles here, to help shelter the Slow Worms that were released by an ecologist back in 2019 when they were saved from land being developed nearby.

This habitat must surely suit small rodents as well as reptiles and we put the perch up to see if birds that hunt them, such as Kestrels and Owls, might like to use it as a look out. This week, for the first time, one of our target birds was caught using the perch:

The Sparrowhawk has been using the perch as well, although always on the lookout for bird prey rather than rodents.

We found one of the log piles had been bulldozed apart to get at rodents sheltering within. The logs are really heavy – only a Badger has the strength to have done this:

There are exciting plans for the wood this year and hopefully the Covid situation will not delay them too much. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and Natural England run the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme to try to understand more about Hazel Dormice and what can be done to stop their recent catastrophic population crash – down 51% since the millennium. We have joined together with our woodland neighbour, and a local ecologist who holds a Dormouse handling licence, and we are entering our combined twenty acres of woodland into this programme. Thirty Dormouse nest boxes will be going up in our wood and twenty in the neighbouring wood, a total of fifty boxes to be checked at least twice a year by the ecologist with the data sent to PTES. Our neighbour and I also hope to start the three-year training to get our own licences and then eventually we can take over the monitoring of the boxes ourselves.

In preparation for the start of this project, we took delivery of thirty Dormouse nest boxes this week. These will be put up with the holes facing the trunks of the trees so that they are less likely to be used by Birds.

Birds continue to check out the bird box with the camera on it in the wood.

This is as far as they have got though so far. We buy our bird seed from the inspirational Vine House Farm run by Nicholas Watts in Lincolnshire. He has hundreds of boxes there occupied by Tree Sparrows each year, and he reports that 50% of these boxes already contain nesting material (they were all cleared out in September last year):

Elsewhere in the wood, there was this lovely shot of a Woodcock:

And a photo that manages to encapsulate how cold it has been recently:

This January I have put down my customary escapist fiction books and picked up some nature writing. I’ve completed two books so far, The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham and Orchid Summer by Jon Dunn. Both have the similar underlying premise of trying to see all British Butterfly species and all British Orchids in a single year.

I’ve really enjoyed them both and will now be emerging from this long, dark, windy and wet winter knowing an awful lot more about both of these topics and very much looking forward to seeing my first Butterfly and Orchid of the year.

Woe Water Rising

On the way back from the wood one day this week, we took a small diversion to the village of Barham where we had heard that the nailbourne had started flowing. East Kent has very little running surface water, but it does have four intermittent streams, that are called nailbournes here.

These nailbournes start running when the water table rises above ground level in an area where there are fissures in the rock and springs bubble up through them. The intermittent stream that flows through Barham is the Elham nailbourne and it runs for fifteen miles until it joins the Little Stour river at Bekesbourne. In the photo below, it crosses a road creating a ford.

In times past, before it was understood why these streams suddenly appeared, they were seen as harbingers of bad luck and were known as ‘woe waters’. Even in the twentieth century, the rising of the Elham nailbourne in the spring of 1935 was widely thought to have been a portent of the death of King George V.

This woe water is said by local legend to rise once every seven years. It ran in 2014 and again in January last year and so perhaps it wasn’t expected again quite yet but these days people get very excited to see it and there certainly has been a lot of rain.

In the meadows, the weather situation can be summed up by just this Badger photo alone:

As well as all the wetness, there have also been days of relentless wind as Storm Christophe blew his way across the country. The rain has worked its way into the lenses of the more exposed of the trail cameras and it will take a few days now for them to properly dry out. In the meantime, I am afraid I am having to offer up some misty photos this time.

A pair of Kestrels have been hunting together in the meadows most of the year. We have seen them previously on this blog sitting companionably shoulder-to-shoulder. So what is going on here?

The female could have simply misjudged her landing but I think it looks deliberate. A minute or so later, she was sitting on the perch on her own looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her beak:

On another day, she was on the perch in the ant paddock. I took this long shot with my camera and was filled with anticipation because that trail camera trained on her there should surely be getting some lovely photos:

But, as it turned out, this camera, too, had been affected by the rain and all that it could offer me were photos that looked like this:

The cameras in the wood are more sheltered from the elements and don’t suffer quite as badly. Although it clearly did snow and I wish I had been there then because it must have been very beautiful.

A Buzzard has paid a few visits to this pond. It’s such a large bird:

We have made a couple of habitat enhancements in the meadows. Another pile of flints down by the wild pond:

We brought some logs back from the wood..

..and made a log pile in the ant paddock:

It is good to feel like we are making some forward progress in all this horrible weather and after having been under severe Covid restrictions for seemingly months. Actually, it really is months now for us here in Kent.

Green Woodpeckers are very active in the meadows at the moment, probing in the grass for ants:

Here is one breaking off for a drink:

I realised that I knew embarrassingly little about the ants here or, indeed, what they get up to in the winter. Are they like wasps and all die off over winter except for the Queens? But, if that is the case, then what are the Green Woodpeckers eating?

Where the meadows haven’t been cut for a couple of years, some pretty impressive Yellow Meadow Ant (Lasius flavus) nests have developed:

But, when the meadows are cut, the tops of these anthills are sliced off and the nests don’t have a chance to properly develop.

Last summer, we visited Park Gate Down, a local Kent Wildlife Trust reserve noted for its Monkey Orchids. The grass here is grazed rather than mown and so the Yellow Meadow Ant nests don’t get destroyed and have been there for hundreds of years.

In the part of the meadows we call the ant paddock, the grass has not been cut for two decades and the whole paddock is chock-a-block with anthills.

The anthills become their own mini habitats supporting different species of plants and animals and, in this way, increasing biodiversity.

Ordinarily, Yellow Meadow Ants don’t come above ground and it is only the winged males and females who make a hole in the mound and emerge once a year to swarm and disperse. Other than that, the ants are busy underground farming aphids (shown at A in the diagram below) that live off the roots of the plants on the mound. The aphids suck nutrients from the roots of the plants and the ants eat the honeydew that comes out of the abdomens of the aphids.

From what I could tell by researching on the internet, all of this is still going on out there during the winter, protected as the ants are under the mound of soil.

Well, I found that all really interesting and I had no idea that these mounds were aphid farms. We decided to find out for ourselves if the woodpeckers were indeed managing to still eat ants through the winter. We collected some Green Woodpecker droppings from the ground:

After drying them on the Aga, they were broken open and put under the Dino-lite microscope:

Sure enough, we could see that they were made up of the exoskeletons of thousands of yellow ants confirming to us that these Woodpeckers are definitely still eating ants in the winter.

In the last post I mentioned that this gate is used as a rodent super-highway at night:

It seems that I’m not the only one to have noticed…..

This Fox wanted to have a really, really close look at one of the trail cameras:

Winter is a time of male Fox dispersal and I find photos like this desperately upsetting. This Fox will no doubt already have moved on before I even collected the camera in but, if he would only stay a week, I could cure that mange with medicated jam sandwiches. I can only hope that when he arrives at wherever it is that he is going, someone will spot his plight and help him.

We woke this morning to a bitter day with a heavy frost.

However, the sunrise was absolutely magnificent to start another winter’s day:

I am so looking forward to spring.

Foxes and Musket Balls

Caressed as we are by the warmer sea, it is rare for temperatures to drop below zero here on the coast, but one morning this week it was down to -2°C:

Once the water had melted, a Sparrowhawk had a bath in the same spot:

We finally got out and did some metal detecting this week once the ground was no longer frozen, although it was still very cold and we didn’t stick at it for long:

Two more musket balls were discovered in the ground. We have now found four, all of the same size and weight:

This sized ammunition was used in ‘Brown Bess’ flintlock muskets which were in service in the British army from 1725 until 1838:

We have two musket balls framed on the wall that were found at the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium (not by us though) and our four from the meadows are the same size as the larger one of these:

At the time that these musket balls were dropped in the meadows, the soldiers would have been dressed as below and the balls would have been held in a black leather bag on the hip. We are assuming that they were dropped rather than fired because there are no indentations on them, although apparently if they have only gone through flesh, there wouldn’t necessarily be any.

As I stand and look out over the meadows, I find it disconcerting to try to imagine these soldiers here in their scarlet and white uniforms two or three hundred years ago. It rams the point forcefully home to me that, as current owners, we are just temporary guardians of the land and this is all just a snapshot of time.

Foxes mate between December and February. At some point during these months, The females come into oestrus for three weeks although fertilisation is only possible for three days of that time. During oestrus, the male closely attends the female and, as the magic three days approach, he shadows her every move. The first attempts to mate are usually rejected by the female and I think this is what we are seeing here. The male on the left is the moth-eaten old gentleman – so perhaps not as moth-eaten as I thought, then:

The Badgers are in their winter torpor and are spending much more of the night cosily in their burrows conserving energy. Although they do appear at some point every night.

The chalk rock under the meadows contains layers of flints which gradually work their way to the surface. We collected some from the hedgerows…

…and made a flint pile near one of the shallow ponds as additional habitat that will be useful shelter for all sorts of things:

The paving stone along the edge of this little pond was already there and, as we were making the flint pile, we found several Frogs sheltering under its lip whilst standing in the water. A couple of days previously, this shallow water had been completely rock solid so presumably they got themselves out of the pond before this happened because otherwise they would have been frozen into the ice.

Whenever the sea is not dangerously rough, my sister-in-law and her friends go swimming every morning throughout the year from the local beach below. One day this week she had an unexpected spectator in this Grey Seal pup:

This is the second pup she has seen in recent weeks. It seemed perfectly alright and will be fully weaned by this stage of the year and so they gave it space and left it in peace.

In the wood, the camera under the feeders always takes hundreds of photos of Pheasants. As I was clicking rapidly through them, my eye caught on this one:

Up in the top right hand corner, a Buzzard is gliding through the wood. Its wingspan is so enormous, I’m amazed that it fits between the trees when at full stretch like that. Here is the same photo but zoomed in:

On both recent visits to the wood I have put several Woodcock up as I step along the paths to get to the cameras. They have also been seen on the camera at the new pond:

Now that it is January, the sound of Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on dead treetops reverberates through the quiet winter wood. They use this drumming to advertise their ownership of an area of the wood, the way that males of other Bird species use song.

The town of Deal is just up the coast and we went there for our flu vaccinations this week and took the opportunity to walk along the seafront. Between the pier and the castle, there is a tangle of fishing boats and winches to lower them down the steep shingle bank into the sea and haul them back up again. Actually, I have never seen these boats move anywhere but maybe they do:

On Fridays, a fisherman sells fish from these tables. It’s a quintessential Deal scene and he’s always very popular.

You can see the pier in the background of the photo – another iconic part of Deal. This is the third pier on this site. The first one, built in 1838, was washed away by a storm some twenty years later. The second one was opened in 1864 and sounded great with salt baths, a tram running along it and a concert pavilion and reading room at the end. However, in 1940 during the war, a Dutch ship, the Nora, was damaged by a mine and was lying incapacitated just to the south. Inevitably, it got swept onto the pier and destroyed a large part of it and Winston Churchill gave the army permission to take all the wreckage away to allow the coastal guns a clear line of sight. The current pier, built of reinforced concrete – and, dare I say, a bit ugly?- was opened in 1957 and now is held in great affection by the people of Deal.

There are often fishermen strung along the pier and you can promenade to the restaurant at the end which is still open for take-aways in these locked down times. I hear that the lobster rolls are very good.

As I write this morning, we have had the lightest of dustings of snow:

In the seven winters that we have been here, we are yet to experience the wonder of an old-school thick carpet of snow covering the meadows – the sort of snow where I used to wake the children up early so that they could dress up in hats and gloves and go out into the garden to make a snowman before school. I know that it comes with lots of hardships to wildlife and inconvenience to travellers but a part of me can’t stop wishing for it nonetheless.

Piddocks in the Chalk

Daffodils are beginning to poke their heads up through the soil, the sun is going down a whole twenty minutes later than on 21st December and my father has been called up for his first dose of the vaccine – these are things to be cheerful about. Yes, its been cold and wet and the country is again in lockdown, but we remain positive.

This odd-looking vessel below has become a very familiar sight, having been here on and off all week. She is the Ocean Marlin, an offshore supply ship, although she is is now on fishery protection duties.

The Royal Navy’s Overseas Patrol Squadron monitors 80,000 square miles of sea around Britain, protecting our fishing rights. It also carries out inspections of fishing boats in UK waters to ensure that they are operating within the law.

A year ago, the squadron was called the Fisheries Protection Squadron and there were just three ships and a helicopter:

As a result of Brexit, there are now eight Naval ships and other vessels such as the Ocean Marlin have also been seconded in to help. 80,000 square miles is, after all, an awfully large area.

One day this week, we went for a walk around the village and down onto the beach.

Some of the chalk has been burrowed into by Piddocks (Pholas sp). These Bivalves can bore a hole into the soft rock by first locking on with their sucker-like feet and next twisting their shells to drill. The animal is then completely protected in its rock tunnel and extends a siphon out to filter feed on organic matter in the water.

On the underside of a big lump of chalk that had broken away, one of the Piddocks was still there – this was exciting for us because, in all the years of seeing their tunnels, we had never actually seen one of the animals before. The flesh of these Bivalves is bioluminescent and apparently it is possible to see them glowing in the dark at low tide.

We also found some fossils in the chalk wave cut platform:

The Gunnery stands up on the cliff – a recently renovated, James Bond-style house that has incorporated a Second World War gun emplacement within its structure. Building work had been going on for ages and it’s good that it is finally completed. The only access to the house is by a lift up from the bottom of the cliff. I don’t know if this house is still for sale, but it was on the market for £6million in March 2020. This seems a lot for something with very little land indeed and a chalet holiday park nestling around it, but what do I know.

Back at the meadows, there are cameras on two of the gates to photograph perching Birds but we also see these gates being used as a super highways for Rats and Mice throughout the night.

Perhaps they feel safer being off the ground away from the Foxes when they are crossing open areas.

We watched through binoculars as a Fox ran at, and probably caught, a Stock Dove that was pottering around under the feeders. There was also this bitten-off wing of a juvenile Herring Gull lying in the meadows.

This Gull must have provided an excellent meal for a Fox because they are really quite large.

And here is another chance to admire how great the one-eyed Vixen is looking these days. Back in the summer, she had scarcely any fur at all on her tail because of mange:

I hadn’t seen Yellowhammer for a while but now they are back:

The Kestrels have been doing a lot of hovering above the meadows hunting for Voles. The male has also been turning up on the cameras:

Woodpigeon are busy working the hedgerows for any remaining food:

In the ponds, the time is approaching when Frogs gather to spawn. We are certainly noticing increased activity:

Across in the wood, this Squirrel is out and about in the cold weather and has managed to find a Hazelnut:

I’m always surprised to see how high up in its head a Woodcock’s eye is:

Finally today, this picture was taken on our walk to the village and it tells the story of our week of weather – wet with a bitter easterly wind:

It is a good time to curl up in the warm with a book and a 1960s edition of Charles Darwin’s Earthworm book has arrived that we are both intending to read. Who knows, we may even try to reproduce some of Darwin’s experiments on our own Worms here…

A Shiny New Wildlife Year

We have had an assortment of different weathers over the festive period. Storm Bella raged across the meadows one wet and wild night and, the next morning, there were lots of these long Earthworms stretched out across the grass. They were alive but we didn’t understand what they were trying to do.

We realised that we knew next to nothing about Earthworms, and yet they have such immense importance to the ecosystem here and everywhere. Charles Darwin spent forty-four years studying Earthworms and carrying out experiments in his garden in Kent and he published a book on them a year before he died which is apparently very readable even now, after all this time.

Worms break down organic matter into substances that plants can use and their burrows allow air and water into the soil, vital for soil health as well as providing space for plant roots, fungi and microorganisms. And, of course, the Worms themselves are an important part of the diet of all sorts of birds as well as Badgers, Foxes, Moles and other animals.

Before long, we ended up at the website of The Earthworm Society of Britain. There are twenty-nine species of Earthworm in the UK and, given how vitally important they are, they are desperately under recorded. So little is known about the distribution of the different species and one of the reasons for this is that they are tricky to identify – many of the species need to be killed first and then put under a microscope to do it properly.

That is something that I do not want to do myself, but I can tell you that our worms, spreadeagled on the grass on the morning after the storm, are probably Blue-grey Worms, Octolasium cyaneum.

Blue-grey Worms are in the Endogeic group – worms that feed on the soil itself and don’t usually come to the surface. Their burrows are horizontal to the ground and not particularly deep down.

But, as I understand it, when conditions are really wet, it is suddenly much easier to move across the surface of the ground rather than tunnelling through the soil below and so they come up to grab that opportunity to disperse quickly and easily. However, they should definitely have ensured that they were back below ground before it got light – once the sun came up I think a lot of them were left exposed and were hoovered up by Seagulls.

I have now joined The Earthworm Society of Britain, watched some of the educational videos on the site and am now much more informed about what is going on out there under the soil and it is fascinating.

Another thing that interested me recently were these next two photos. Here are a Woodpigeon and a Stock Dove having a bath in the wild pond:

Once they had left, there was a slick of dust floating on the surface of the water:

Perhaps we are all familiar with the print that a Pigeon makes on a window if it flies into one by mistake:

This white dust on Pigeons and Doves comes from their soft down feathers which have fine barbs that crumble away to form this feather dust. The bird then preens itself to spread this waxy dust all over to make itself waterproof.

Most other birds have a preen gland which produces an oil with which to waterproof themselves but Birds that use feather dust either have no preen gland or a very much reduced one. Bathing is especially important for these feather dust Birds, to wash the dirty dust off so that they can replace it with new to keep them properly waterproof and well insulated.

Our general strategy is to cut both meadows once a year and remove all the cut vegetation, thus gradually reducing the nutrient level of the grassland. But we do always leave areas uncut so that some long grass habitat still remains each year. Most of this retained long grass is in the second meadow, but the first meadow does have a few patches as well.

A couple of days before Christmas, we spotted a flask-shaped Wasp Spider egg sac in one of these patches of long grass in the first meadow.

Now that we had got our eye in for them, we instituted a search of all uncut areas and ended up finding three. One was very close to the Wasp Spider webs we were watching back in the autumn and is almost certainly the egg sac of one of those two Spiders.

How fantastic to have moved another step forward in our understanding of their lifecycle. The next stage now is to see if we can spot the Spiderlings coming out of these egg sacs next spring.

All round the hedgerows now there are Woodpigeon eating Ivy berries.

It is only Woodpigeon I have seen taking them at the moment but there are still a few Hawthorn berries left on the bushes. Song and Mistle Thrushes, Redwing, Blackbirds and Blackcaps do also eat Ivy berries but only when all other options have gone. Presumably they are not as tasty, but they have a high fat content and so are great fuel for the Birds when they do get round to them. The RSPB says that the pith of an Ivy berry contains nearly as many calories as a Mars bar, gram for gram.

During the first lockdown, flour was in severe shortage for several weeks and in desperation I bought some coconut flour but never used it. Now, as it is about to go out of date, I made some rock cakes with it. Unfortunately these cakes really lived up to their name and were indeed much like stone. We didn’t want to eat them and so they went out with the peanuts one evening and I am pleased to see that at least the moth-eaten old gentleman Fox appreciated them:

All the expected Birds of Prey have been sighted over the festive period:

In the wood, our coppicing work has been continuing slowly:

Christmas Day was unusually quiet for us as I’m sure it was for many people. We walked the dog up on the high chalk cliffs before breakfast which was a really memorable way to start the day:

I got two interesting-looking natural history books as presents. I must make more time in my day for reading:

On New Year’s Eve, it all went very cold here. A lot of the country had a fall of snow and even we potentially had some forecast, but none arrived.

On New Year’s Day, the Autumn Stream quietly came alongside and dropped anchor. She had taken seventeen days sailing from Peru and was loaded with a cargo of bananas and other exotic fruits. Dressed as we were in double coats, scarf and gloves and standing by a frozen pond, it was impossible not to be imbued with a little bit of tropical sunshine and warmth by her presence.

1066, 1666, 1914 – some years stand out from all the others and maybe 2020 will be one of these, but it is behind us now. We are embarking on a shiny new year with light flooding strongly in from the end of a long and dark pandemic tunnel. It will be wonderful when we get there but, until then, we here will be focusing on Earthworms and other wildlife to get us through.

Review of 2020 in the Meadows – Part 3

This third instalment of the review of the meadows starts with an unexpected and funny thing that happened here this autumn. A few days after a gale, we noticed that all the apples that had been blown off the trees by the wind were still lying on the ground. The pears, however, had completely disappeared. A camera, trained onto one of the pear trees to see what was going on, discovered that here in East Kent we have tree-climbing Foxes and that they really, really love pears:

Over a couple of weeks, every pear was removed from the tree. Meanwhile the apples continued to lie untouched on the ground until the birds eventually got round to eating them.

On a clear day, Calais Town Hall can be seen through a pair of binoculars from the meadows – France is little more than twenty miles away across the Channel. As a result, autumn is exciting here with birds gathering from across the UK, waiting for good conditions to make the short sea crossing over to continental Europe and onwards south towards the warmth of Africa.

But this year, as well as the migration that we were expecting, very large numbers of Siskin, Crossbill and Lesser Redpoll flew through the meadows over several weeks. But it wasn’t understood whether these birds were leaving, arriving or just moving around. It started with the Siskins – the Bird Ringers managed to catch and ring a few:

After the Siskins came the Crossbill and the Lesser Redpoll. No Crossbill could unfortunately be persuaded into the net, but 214 Lesser Redpoll were ringed:

Meanwhile, other Birds were migrating south as normal:

A bit of a rarity, a Yellow-browed Warbler:

The first time a Redstart has been ringed here – and two of them went into the net together:

In 2019, a large number of House Martins were ringed. This didn’t happen this year but there was this Swallow:

A Ring Ouzel stayed for several days:

A Blackbird started to scold the Ouzel for trying to share the bath…

…but then seemed to rather regret this once it saw the Ouzel’s feisty reaction:

Some Birds were coming in rather than going out, like this Redwing and Brambling:

And possibly this Short Eared Owl had newly arrived as well:

A Great Black Backed Gull landed in the meadows with a flapping flat Fish, accompanied by a retinue of hopeful Herring Gulls. However, it managed to swallow the Fish down-in-one itself and the Herring Gulls were unlucky. I see that there are 17,000 pairs of UK breeding Great Blacked Gulls, but that this number swells to 76,000 birds in the winter and so this bird could well also have been a recent arrival.

Some birds are with us all year round. We have far too many Magpies here to my mind and seeing them eating small Birds like this does not make me any fonder of them:

However, I have enormous affection for the pair of Kestrels hunting in the meadows this year. The female of the pair is the one that was ringed here in the autumn of 2019:

Here are the two of them together:

We generally see more of the male:

Here he has caught a Vole:

And he eats it:

And then cleans his bloodied talons and stretches his wing after his meal:

The female here is also bringing a Vole to the perch and there are more bloodied talons:

This Sparrowhawk has caught a Blue Tit just before dawn:

It is always such a delight to see the Tawny Owl in the meadows:

2019 was a Painted Lady year and we saw so many of these migratory Butterflies that we ceased to properly notice them, but this year we have not seen a single one. We have, however, seen all of the other 22 species of Butterflies that we would expect to see, including this migrant Clouded Yellow in September:

Two Wasp Spider webs were found within a metre of each other. This large Spider was first recorded in Britain in 1922 in Sussex and it is a Grasshopper specialist, building its web low to the ground. The web has the distinctive zigzag ribbon down the centre of it called the stabilimentum, the purpose of which is still being debated.

Both ladies did brisk business catching, wrapping, killing and then eating prey. You can actually make out the Bee in this parcel:

Sometimes, these Spiders were so successful that they had several wrapped packages stored at the edges of their webs, waiting to be eaten. We never saw either of them catch a Grasshopper though. Several times a day, I was to be found at the webs, horrified and fascinated in equal parts. Then, at some point towards the end of September, both Spiders disappeared, having left their webs to build an egg sac nearby. We searched for these egg sacs but without success. However, in the last few days, we have found three of them in the long grasses in the parts of the meadows left uncut. One of them was very close to the webs that we had been watching back in the autumn:

When the grass was cut this autumn, all Wasp Spider egg sacs will likely have been destroyed in the cut areas. A salutary lesson on the benefits of the mosaic approach to meadow management and how easy it is to wipe out entire populations of things without realising it.

Some other photos from this last part of the year

On the 21st December, the winter solstice, there was a Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the skies and these two large planets had not been so close since 1623. You can see four moons around Jupiter on our digiscoped photo below:

This year has not been a great one for us humans and I really hope that the planets will align to make the coming one much better. But it has been another magnificent year in the meadows and we have found a lot of comfort and welcome distraction in watching it all happen. This closes my review of 2020 and I am looking forward to seeing what more there is to discover in 2021.